Animation is my favorite genre of film. For a multitude of reasons that I will get into, it simply has always captured my attention and imagination. I might be a little biased growing up in the Disney renaissance of the 90’s. Nonetheless, animation has changed in the past decade on both the small and large screen. It has been elevated to include more then just childish humor and is far better for it.
First off let’s talk about the technology. As just about everything, animation has seen a huge benefit from the rapid advancement in technology. Even if you are comparing animation from only a few years ago. An excellent example is the Toy Story Trilogy. Going from the first to the last, you see a very clear advancement in detail and overall richness in the animation. Taking movies such as Big Hero 6, the progress of animation is even clearer. Why is this important? Simple, it allows animators to fit more into a single scene. Whether that’s something as ordinary as more blades of grass or as entertaining as including some hidden easter eggs.
With more detailed animation comes the risk of the uncanny valley. The uncanny valley is essentially a point in animation where it is one step below photo realistic. It quite frankly creeps out the audience. This reaction is so negative that it actually turns people off of the content. This is where animation style is key. Animation is not hindered by realism. It’s part of the reason why it’s one of my favorite genres. Their characters can be as human as you want. Lets take Big Hero 6. It has people but they aren’t hyper realistic. They are more caricatures whose features help to accentuate the characters personalities. So, while animation continues to be more detailed, it has built in methods to circumvent the uncanny valley
Second is the level of the story telling. I would cite Pixar as the first sign of this idea. Pixar has made story paramount. They use story as the base and build off of it. They rarely make cash grabs and they are always using their stories to push the limits of technology. In the recent book Creativity, Inc., we get a unique inside look into the development of Pixar and their feature films. Putting the story first is something that I believe to be unique to animation. I’m not saying it can’t happen in other genres of film, it’s just more important to have a good story in animation. What it comes down to is the cost of an animated film.
For example, lets compare The Avengers to Toy Story 3. The Avengers cost 220 million dollars to produce. That is not a cheap movie and had more than a few incredible scenes that were the definition of blockbuster spectacle. On the other side, you have Toy Story 3. It required no traveling to shoot at other locations, costume pieces, or just about anything else a live action film would need. It cost 200 million dollars to produce. Now, money is not the only cost in making a film. Time is also incredibly crucial. Toy Story 3 took approximately 4 years to complete. The Avengers took about half that time. You can see how animated films can require a similar amount of money to produce and can take even longer to actually finish. This all means that animated films have a smaller margin for error. This is where a strong story comes in. No matter what the medium, a strong story is easy to sell and will always succeed. Animated films don’t have the luxury of doing reshoot’s on the fly. Animators have to go in having a nearly crystal clear picture of what they want so that they don’t waste anytime creating their film.
The last sign of a new animation renaissance is the infused messages. For a long while, animated films were seen as children films. Things are changing. With the advancements in technology and story telling it allows these films to transcend their assigned genres. To clarify, the animated films I am talking about are those that are still targeted at children and families. We are starting to get films that aren’t afraid to tackle truly adult or grown-up subject matter. Whether you look at Up or Frozen, animated films aren’t shy about infusing complex messages. The clearest example of a studio that does this is LAIKA. Their first two films Coraline and Paranorman are truly mind blowing in the themes they chose to include. I don’t want to spoil the films for you but to put it simply, these films perfectly cover themes ranging from homosexuality, fear mongering, mob mentality, fitting in, parent child relationship, and more.
You are even seeing this on the small screen. Most recently, the example that comes to mind is The Legend of Korra. In its series finale, we saw the first openly homosexual couple with Korra and Asami. This is huge as this is often seen as taboo in the genre. It has never really been explicitly included. Yet here we are. A more general example is Adventure Time. A show that on the surface looks like some collection of drug fueled animations, but actually has a lot of heart. It does a great job of combining ridiculous adventures with pretty complex and heart felt messages.
The fact that studios are willing to tackle such complex themes is the surest sign that we are entering a new renaissance. The first animated renaissance gave us the music that captured a generation. I myself am listening to the Disney Pandora station while writing. This time around, we are going to get an age of animated films that will truly transcend the children’s genre. Films that tackle issues and themes that resonate regardless of age. The kind of film that will emotionally impact a 22 year old just as much as a 10 year old.
With technology that is allowing for more complex worlds to be created, stories that drive the production, and themes that capture our emotional attention. This is what the next animated renaissance will look like, so buckle up. It’s going to be a fantastic ride.